When it comes to modernizing any piece of IP, making its characters more broadly representative of the world off-screen is an obvious first item on the to-do list, and it’s one Fuller has a history of doing well. Discovery is no exception.
Truth be told, I’m a late comer to the “Star Trek Discovery” franchise. I did watch the initial first season but got lost in the translation before heading into season 2. Boy-oh-boy am I glad, I found this series again. I’m a fan of the Discovery cocreator Bryan Fuller and have followed the project with interest since his involvement was announced. As has been widely documented, Fuller exited the project mid-production of season one, in part to focus on his Starz drama, American Gods, and in part due to conflicts with CBS over budget (which eventually totaled more than $6 million an episode), time frame (the series was originally supposed to launch in February 2017), and whether the series should be an anthology (Fuller was pro, CBS was con). Along with Alex Kurtzman, who also worked on the latest Star Trek film trilogy, Fuller is still billed as creator, and cocredited with the story for the first three episodes, but the writer-producer is no longer involved with Discovery’s day-to-day creative decision-making.
Yet the final product still maintains a distinctly Fullerian bent. There are the macabre episode names, like “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” and imagery, like a Klingon ship covered in sarcophagi. There’s also the pointed diversity, which fits seamlessly into Star Trek’s historic humanism — or rather, interspecies consortium-ism — while still being unprecedented even in this most liberal of properties. Protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a mutineer turned conscript, is a woman of color, as is her captain at the series’ onset, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). (Some observers grumbled at Discovery killing off Yeoh’s character and replacing her with a white, male captain, though Yeoh’s star power suggests that she was always a temporary presence.) Meanwhile, chief engineer Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and ship doctor Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) are in a committed partnership, an initial piece of background information that becomes the emotional crux of the first season finale as Stamets’s experimental work puts his life in danger. When it comes to modernizing any piece of IP, making its characters more broadly representative of the world off-screen is an obvious first item on the to-do list, and it’s one Fuller has a history of doing well. Discovery is no exception.
But every adventure connects in some way with both the Discovery and Discovery’s overarching goal: defeat the Klingons.
Discovery took three full chapters, the only three provided to critics in advance, to set up its core story. The first two, Battlestar Galactica–style, were almost a self-contained movie, depicting the Klingon confrontation that would result in Michael’s mutiny, full-scale war, and the death of Captain Georgiou. The third established the premise, with Captain Lorca conscripting Michael, now a prisoner, to the crew of the Discovery, a vessel dedicated to developing a means to essentially teleport through space using a so-called “spore drive.” Science!
All that exposition means that Discovery got a full third of the way through its season before it started to explore — and when it did, there wasn’t much time to do it without feeling like a distraction. Self-contained episodes did make an appearance, with the crew spending one particularly fine episode trapped in a time loop and Burnham, Tyler, and First Officer Saru (Doug Jones) splitting off for an old-fashioned “let’s go to a trippy planet and interact with a new species” romp. But every adventure connects in some way with both the Discovery and Discovery’s overarching goal: defeat the Klingons.
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Throughout the season, Martin-Green manifests that guilt in a haunted intensity that hovers over every scene without overwhelming them and gives Michael an internal conflict that transcends a mere repetition of Spock’s Vulcan logic–human emotion divide.
Discovery’s attempt to have it both ways — an epic and an anthology of short stories — also shortchanges the season-long stories as often as the reverse; the most significant Klingon character, an albino zealot named Voq (Javid Iqbal), vanishes abruptly, taking a compellingly ambiguous villain off the board just as his character’s taking shape. A popular fan theory holds that he’s still around in disguise, but that doesn’t make his disappearance any less jarring to the casual viewer.
Nevertheless, Discovery’s issues don’t shortchange what truly matters: the characters. The tie-ins are fairly direct; though Michael is a human, her Vulcan foster father, Sarek (James Frain), is Spock’s biological father, making Discovery’s main character the adoptive sister of one of Star Trek’s most iconic protagonists. We need a crew that can fill the shoes of those that came before them, or at least promise to — the hardest task facing Discovery at its inception, and the one it’s excelled the most at. Michael is a remarkable heroine, carrying with her the almost unimaginable guilt that comes with causing the deaths of her mentor and so many colleagues. Throughout the season, Martin-Green manifests that guilt in a haunted intensity that hovers over every scene without overwhelming them and gives Michael an internal conflict that transcends a mere repetition of Spock’s Vulcan logic–human emotion divide. As a figure from her past intimately familiar with Michael’s mistakes and understandably reluctant to forgive her for them, Saru is a crucial presence; so is her cheerily awkward roommate Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), an initial comic relief who gradually develops into Michael’s sympathetic mentee.
Going into the second half of its season, Discovery has kinks to work out, but it’s laid the all-important groundwork for a rich and tight-knit ensemble. If my ultimate frustration with a season of television was that, between all the swashbuckling and strategizing, I didn’t get to spend enough time watching characters get to the root of their dysfunctions, then that’s less a complaint than a backhanded compliment.
Set 10 years before Star Trek: The Original Series, Discovery quickly showed it had a weird, futuristic edge that had been sorely lacking in the cinematic Abrams-verse. And as the writing staff promised to throw out a core Roddenberry Rule (that a protagonist should be overwhelmingly good) in the lead-up to its premiere, the first two episodes 1,000 percent confirmed that First Officer Burnham would be a character capable of error (and a highly interesting person due to that newfound complexity). We sat whiteknuckled through season one’s mid-season finale, endured endless Mirror Universe pondering to reach an equally action-packed and satisfied S1 finale, watched old favorites like Spock show up in the materials for S2, and then enjoyed the ride as all the tie-ins and throwbacks to old Trek slowly fizzled out in favor of new ideas and discoveries within the universe courtesy of the USS Discovery.
Sketch out your story layout and track your story visually as a writer, a director, a creator…
This season was always going to be do or die, literally and figuratively, even before the events of this year sent the world into chaos.
So much has happened in the rebooted Star Trek universe since we left the Discovery crew last April. Section 31 and Strange New Worlds are in preproduction. Earlier this year, Picard did … all that. And over the past few months, Lower Decks has done basically whatever it wanted, in a way that, for better or worse, has injected a breath of fresh, irreverent air into an otherwise brutal time.
But all this while the fate of our flagship nerd gang has weighed on my mind. This season was always going to be do or die, literally and figuratively, even before the events of this year sent the world into chaos. Finally Discovery was actually going where no one has gone before, rather than filling in the gaps of where others have been going for over a half-century. It’s finally able to grow, unfettered by entrenched canon or unnecessary blockbuster aspirations (or unnecessary white guys — did y’all even see one this week?), into a series that will succeed or fail as a Star Trek show on its own merits. And now? In this economy? Not to be dramatic, but the world really needs Star Trek to be great right now.
Because after the dense, chaotic struggles of last season, “The Hope Is You, Part 1” is everything it needed to be.
So at the outset of the premiere, Michael Burnham (“Science Officer, USS Discovery, serial number SC0064-0974SHN”) scans the seemingly barren planet, where she has crash-landed, for signs of life. After a moment, her Daedalus suit’s computer chirps: “Multiple life signs detected.” That scream of relief and triumph that comes out of Sonequa Martin-Green’s mouth here? That’s the only natural way to respond to this episode. Because after the dense, chaotic struggles of last season, “The Hope Is You, Part 1” is everything it needed to be. It’s exciting; it’s beautiful; it’s funny as hell; it made me full-on sob at the end. And I have no idea what’s going to happen next. Isn’t that great? We made it through the wormhole, and there’s life on the other side.
Well, Burnham has, at least. Discovery is TBD. She collides with a ship on her way into 3188, so after getting no response from Discovery and sending the suit back to the 23rd century to set the last signal for Spock, she goes looking for him. The pilot is a very good-looking, very distrustful rogue named Book (short for Cleveland Booker) who is in the middle of transporting some clandestine, extremely valuable stolen cargo and wants absolutely nothing to do with Michael. (I don’t blame him; it is a little like she and her idealism came through the wormhole from the spring of 2019, while Book is everyone living through 2020.) However, he is “space broke,” and her offer of a mint-condition, 930-year-old antique tricorder finally sways him into taking her with him to Requiem, the city where he gets work as a courier, to find a comms array to contact Discovery. En route, he reveals several critical new realities that send Michael reeling:
After the Temporal War, during which the Gorn destroyed a whopping two light-years of subspace, all time-travel technology was expressly banned, so her presence here is already sus. (Don’t worry, only fans of Star Trek: Enterprise will already know anything about this 31st-century conflict.)
Suddenly, Burnham and Book are surrounded by people who want to kill Book but will settle on her, since they need him alive to recover the cargo.
Dilithium is now the most precious commodity in the known universe, thanks to a massive disaster known as the Burn, when the “galaxy took a hard left” and nearly all dilithium suddenly exploded, killing millions on warp-capable ships.
Thanks to the Burn, the Federation is virtually nonexistent now, presumably having disintegrated into protectionism in the face of the ensuing resource crisis, so she needs to conceal her “true believer” status in this unfriendly new world.
Requiem and its mercantile were ripped straight out of the nearest cyberpunk franchise, with a splash of surly Mos Eisley Cantina clientele. Apparently, the Andorians and the Orions have allied now, and they run the joint with a decidedly inconsistent hand, first failing to stop Michael at the doors for not having ID (her merchandise is way too valuable to pass up), then flubbing her arrest when Book betrays her by telling her their vault is the comms array and letting her walk into a stasis beam, freeing him to take the rest of her tech. (Yes, yes, we get it: He’s Lando and Han.) They dose her with some vaporized cross between truth serum and poppers to get her to tell them where her merchandise is, which almost goes well. She probably would have told them anyway, but the next few minutes are way more fun and stress free now that our Vulcan-raised xenoanthropologist is absolutely zooted.
“I’m dying to talk about it because today doesn’t happen to people. Ever,” she gushes to her new best friends, Orion Cop and Andorian Cop. “I might be angry. I mean, I’m supportive. I’m so supportive. I am reflexively supportive. And what is that about? I’m overcompensating!!” Eventually, she leads them to the real culprit, Book, who is already getting his teeth kicked in by the guy he stole his secret cargo from, a literal Middle Earth orc named Cosmo. Suddenly, Burnham and Book are surrounded by people who want to kill Book but will settle on her, since they need him alive to recover the cargo. That “LMAO let’s go, I guess” shrug Burnham gives Book before they wordlessly team up and start shooting their way out together added at least a few days on to my life. It’s the same look on my face every time a new disaster strolls into our already flaming hellscape.
So now we know Book is pretty cool — his people are poachers, and he’s the outcast who wants to use their gifts to rescue endangered creatures rather than sell them.
Somehow amid the cross-fire chaos, Book activates his personal transporter and Burnham steals a bunch of dilithium to get Book to take her with him. Thus begins an incredibly cool sequence during which these glorified mall cops chase our heroes through rapid-fire landscapes across this frankly gorgeous planet. Burnham punches Book several times, which seems more than fair.
Long story short, the escape brings out a new side of Book: He’s actually kind of a softboi. That is, he’s not human; he has some sort of spiritual, empathic connection with living things that helps him, for example, instantly grow plants with healing properties to dress Michael’s gunshot wound. Or encourage the endangered, walrus-size worm he’s rescuing to eat the capitalists who want to sell it as a delicacy, but please do spit out our new friend — she’s cool. “I really, really didn’t know how this day was going to turn out!” Michael sputters after being projectile-vomited back up, covered in what might, unfortunately, be digested Andorian.
So now we know Book is pretty cool — his people are poachers, and he’s the outcast who wants to use their gifts to rescue endangered creatures rather than sell them. And apparently he’s decided Burnham is pretty cool, too, because he finally asks her how far in time she’s traveled, lets her try contacting Discovery using the comms array he’s had in his pocket this whole time, and then, when that fails, takes her to an old Federation relay station couriers now use as a waypoint. Cue the waterworks …
Discovery has even spawned its own spin-off to come, Star Trek Strange New Worlds. Look for an upcoming blogpost on the new series, as well as coverage on S2 of Star Trek Picard!
Here, she meets Aditya Sahil, the Desmond-esque Starfleet liaison who, as we briefly saw in the cold open, has been getting up and going to work for 40 years, all alone, waiting for the day a Federation officer finally showed up. Michael introduces herself — by name, rank, and serial number — and I’ll be damned if I didn’t well up at the look on this dude’s face as he stands up to offer her his assistance. He can’t locate Discovery, but he only has a sensor range of about 30 sectors, because long-range sensors “failed decades ago” — another crushing reminder of all they’ve lost. Worst of all, it’s clear that Discovery is probably not here yet, which means Michael might find them tomorrow — or she might never see them again. This is the new reality she’s going to have to live with: no Federation, no family, and no end in sight.
But, as Sahil puts it, his faith has already been rewarded: “That hope is you, Commander Burnham.” He admits that while his father and grandfather were commissioned Starfleet officers, there was no one to commission him — and thus no one who could raise the Starfleet flag. As I full-on sob over here, Burnham commissions him as her communications chief to continue the search for Discovery, and they raise the flag together. “I don’t know how much of the Federation still exists. I simply do my part to keep it alive,” Sahil says, fully restoring my will to live. “Our numbers are few. Our spirit is undiminished.”
Maybe we’ll get through this nightmare after all.
As we now all patiently wait for a S4, Star Trek as a TV staple looks to be as healthy as it once was when the franchise spent 18 consecutive years on our sets. Discovery has even spawned its own spin-off to come, Star Trek Strange New Worlds. Look for an upcoming blogpost on the new series, as well as coverage on S2 of Star Trek Picard! I’m just thrilled to see so much new and excellent development in the world of Star Trek!
Source: Arstechnica, The Ringer, Paramount Plus, Vulture, IMDB.
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